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Books & Manuscripts

Be a Part of It: How Charles Dickens Came to Love New York

By Dr. Kalika Sands

W as there ever such a sunny street as this Broadway! The pavement stones are polished with the tread of feet until they shine again; the red bricks of the houses might be yet in the dry, hot kilns; and the roofs of those omnibuses look as though, if water were poured on them, they would hiss and smoke, and smell like half-quenched fires.” – Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (1842)

On 3 January 1842 – just as his 30th birthday approached – Charles Dickens, along with his wife Catherine, set sail from Liverpool on board the RMS Britannia, which was bound for Halifax and Boston. The couple first arrived on 22 January 1842, and as the steamer approached the shores of Massachusetts, Dickens noted: “The indescribable interest with which I strained my eyes, as the first patches of American soil peeped like molehills from the green sea, and followed them, as they swelled, by slow and almost imperceptible degrees, into a continuous line of coast, can hardly be exaggerated.” In this vein of wonder and anticipations, Dickens continued: “A sharp keen wind blew dead against us; a hard frost prevailed on shore; and the cold was most severe. Yet the air was so intensely clear, and dry, and bright, that the temperature was not only endurable, but delicious” (American Notes).

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DICKENS, CHARLES, AND GEORGE CRUIKSHANK [ILLUSTRATOR] | Unpublished autograph letter signed ("D"), to George Cruikshank, completed on the artist's proof, related to the publication of The Pic-Nic Papers, [no year, but likely 1840]. Estimate $7,000 – 10,000.

By 1842, Dickens had already published The Pickwick Papers (April 1836 to November 1837), Oliver Twist (February 1837 to April 1839), Nicholas Nickleby (April 1838 to October 1839), The Old Curiosity Shop (April 1840 to November 1841), Barnaby Rudge (February to November 1841), and the Pic-Nic Papers. Associated with the publication of the latter is a remarkable unpublished letter completed on the artist’s proof, marking the collaborative efforts of Victorian literature's most prominent authors, and one of its most prolific illustrators, George Cruikshank.

This letter consists of one page (4 1/2 x 7 1/8 in.; 114 x 180 mm) on a bifolium, edges gilt, dated "Tuesday fifteenth December" [no year, but likely 1840], with three pencil sketches executed by George Cruikshank on verso of second leaf; some toning and minor smudging. The Pic-Nic Papers was athree-volume anthology comprising miscellaneous pieces by various authors. It was conceived by Dickens to benefit the widow and children of John Macrone—Dickens’ first publisher—who died suddenly of influenza in September of 1837 at the age of 28.


B efore the age of 30, he had achieved immense success in Britain, and his popularity in the Unites States proved equally impressive. He had made the decision to voyage to the U.S. in part to visit his adoring masses, but also to raise the issue of copyright laws and pirating in America. In fact, the very title of American Notes for General Circulation, published a few months after Dickens’ return to England, is a reference to the sort of bootlegging of his works – and those of other popular British authors – routinely taking place in the United States.

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Large bird's-eye view of New York City with Battery Park in the foreground, with contemporary hand-coloring. [Artists: HEINE, Wilhelm (1827-1885) and Robert KUMMER (1810-1889).]

New York:

Charles and Catherine arrived in New York on 12 February 1842, with the former observing: “The beautiful metropolis of America is by no means so clean a city as Boston, but many of its streets have the same characteristics; except that the houses are not quite so fresh-coloured, the sign-boards are not quite so gaudy, the gilded letters not quite so golden, the bricks not quite so red, the stone not quite so white, the blinds and area railings not quite so green, the knobs and plates upon the street doors not quite so bright and twinkling.” In general terms, it would seem that while Dickens was generally taken with the spectacle of Manhattan, he found Boston to be a far more salubrious city, and indeed, it was in New York that his American Notes perhaps takes on most variety, but also the point at which the author’s love of the U.S. began to break down. In the early 1840s, New York was still very much an emerging city, and the growth it was experiencing rendered it similar to Dickens’ London in more ways than one. “There are many by-streets, almost as neutral in clean colours, and positive in dirty ones, as by-streets in London,” Dickens observed; “and there is one quarter, commonly called the Five Points, which, in respect of filth and wretchedness, may be safely backed against Seven Dials, or any other part of famed St. Giles’s” (American Notes). Here, Dickens is referencing areas of London that he not only frequented, but also wrote about on a number of occasions. These were, at the time, also regarded as some of the most dire areas in all of London. Ever the social reformer, Dickens couldn’t help but compare the two great metropolises, his constant consideration the quality of life each could offer its inhabitants.

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Sketch of Dickens in 1842 during his first American tour. Sketch of Dickens's sister Fanny, bottom left. Wikipedia Creative Commons

Boz Ball and Park Row:

Despite his initial misgivings, Dickens and his wife quickly settled into the excitement Manhattan offered, and on the evening of 14 February, attended the “Boz Ball,” thrown in honor of the author. The affair unfolded at Park Theatre, then located at 21 – 25 Park Row. It was attended by no less that 3,000 of New York’s elite, and proved to be one of the grandest events the city had ever seen. A bust of Dickens hung from one of the theatre’s balconies, with an eagle appearing to soar over his head. Beneath glittering chandeliers, and festoons of bunting, walls draped with white muslin were punctuated by medallions Dickens’ various works, and these were interspersed with silver stars and rosettes. Dickens was received like royalty, with the ball costing $80,000 (about $2.6 million in today’s money), and attended by Astors, Brevoorts, Motts, Livingstons, Hones, and Cheesemans. The author was introduced by the city’s mayor, Robert Morris, and then paraded around the enormous ballroom to the tune of Handel’s “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes.” The following morning, the normally reserved Philip Hone – prominent merchant and former New York mayor – exclaimed in his diary that the ball was “the greatest affair in modern times.” Indeed Charles and Catherine danced most of the night, with the author remarking to a dinner guest: "If I should live to grow old, the scenes of this and other evenings will shine as brightly to my dull eyes 50 years hence as now."

If I should live to grow old, the scenes of this and other evenings will shine as brightly to my dull eyes 50 years hence as now.
Charles Dickens remarking on the "Boz Ball"

In true Dickensian fashion, while the Boz Ball would remain an opulent and memorable welcome to Manhattan, Dickens spent much of the remainder of his time in the city touring some of its grittiest areas.

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Park Theatre-Park Row in 1831. Drawn & Engraved by H. Fossette.

Wall Street:

“We must cross Broadway again; gaining some refreshment from the heat, in the sight of the great blocks of clean ice which are being carried into shops and bar-rooms,” Dickens begins, the bustling avenue serving as a refrain of sorts through the New York chapter of American Notes. “[A]nd the pine-apples and water-melons profusely displayed for sale. Fine streets of spacious houses here, you see! – Wall Street has furnished and dismantled many of them very often – and here a deep green leafy square” (American Notes).

Dickens was well aware of the power of Wall Street, and how fortunes could be gained or lost in an instant. His own father, John Dickens, was famously locked away in London’s Marshalsea Prison for unpaid debts, and the author would remain conscious of wealth and class throughout his life. In his Little Dorrit (serialized between December 1855 – June 1857), Dickens described the Marshalsea thus: “It was a hot summer day, and the prison rooms were baking between the high walls.” And in Dickens’ eyes, Wall Street was a “narrow thoroughfare, baking and blistering in the sun.” These ideas of narrowness and heat, of confinement and poverty, remained with Dickens throughout his life, and echoed through his body of work. The ephemerality of money was also a constant theme in his novels – affecting the majority of his protagonists – and something he was seemingly fixated by whilst visiting Wall Street. “Some of these very merchants whom you see hanging about here now,” he observed, “have locked up money in their strong-boxes, like the man in the Arabian Nights, and opening them again, have found but withered leaves” (American Notes). In both Little Dorrit and Bleak House (serialized between March 1852 and September 1853), Dickens explores the idea of vanishing fortunes. Indeed, money – or, specifically, one’s obsession with it – more often than not proves ruinous in ways poverty infrequently does. There is a deep irony here, given that Dickens did all he could do escape and conceal his origins, and that a primary focus of his time in the United States was campaigning for copyright laws that would allow foreign authors to reap the benefits of their international celebrity.

Some of these very merchants whom you see hanging about here now have locked up money in their strong-boxes, like the man in the Arabian Nights, and opening them again, have found but withered leaves.
Charles Dickens remarking on Wall Street (American Notes)
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A drawing of the Custom House on Wall Street in New York, 1850. From the book A picture of New York in 1850 : with a short account of places in its vicinity : designed as a guide to citizens and strangers ; with numerous engravings, and a map of the city. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Carlton House Hotel:

Dickens could arguably, be viewed as one of the first international celebrities, and many aspects of his stay in Manhattan are evidence of his fame. Indeed, while he was in New York, Charles and Catherine stayed at the Carlton House Hotel, which, while it existed, was one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. Its rate in 1840 was $2 per night (the same as the famed Astor House, which boasted indoor plumbing on every floor), and the Dickenses’ suite was made up of a parlor, drawing room and two bedrooms overlooking Broadway and Leonard Street. “Shall we sit down in an upper floor of the Carlton House Hotel (situated in the best part of this main artery of New York),” Dickens asks. “[A]nd when we are tired of looking down upon the life below, sally forth arm-in-arm, and mingle with the stream?” It’s a thoroughly Dickensian proposition, as the author was, famously, a prolific walker, and one obsessed by cityscapes. As he draws his read out with him into this torrent of life, it is not his intention to traverse similarly affluent landmarks and streets.

Shall we sit down in an upper floor of the Carlton House Hotel (situated in the best part of this main artery of New York)? [A]nd when we are tired of looking down upon the life below, sally forth arm-in-arm, and mingle with the stream?
Charles Dickens (American Notes)

The Tombs:

“Again across Broadway,” Dickens guides his reader, seemingly unable to sit still when there is so much excitement to absorb, when he can pass “from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops – into another long main street, the Bowery.” So keen to burrow into the city, it is as if Dickens is eager to seek out its rough edges, scraping through these seedier scenes, which allow his imagination to spark and catch fire. “The stores are poorer here,” he notes, but though he was seated in the lap of luxury just a few blocks away, he doesn’t seem to mind such a shift. He notes a shop sign announcing “Oysters in every Style,” and feels this place must “tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmering inside, illuminate these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger” (American Notes). But the sort of enchantment Dickens so skillfully engenders through this haze of candlelight abruptly ends when he reaches The Tombs.

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Picture postcard of The Tombs - a New York prison. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

“What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama! – a famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?” he asks his readers, making them into these darker corners of New York, making them active participants in his exploration of Manhattan once again. “The Tombs” is still the name used for the Manhattan Detention Complex, located in Lower Manhattan. Over the past 170 years or so, there have been four complexes, but Dickens is referring to the first of these, which was designed in the Egyptian revival style by John Haviland in 1838. “A long, narrow, lofty building, stove-heated as usual, with four galleries, one above the other, going round it and communicating by stairs,” Dickens describes.

“Between the two sides of each gallery, and in its centre, a bridge, for the greater convenience of crossing… On each tier, are two opposite rows of small iron doors. They look like furnace-doors, but are cold and black, as though the fires within had all gone out… Each cell door on this side has a square aperture in it. Some of the women peep anxiously through it at the sound of footsteps; others shrink away in shame. – For what offence can that lonely child, of ten or twelve years old, be shut up here? Oh! that boy? He is the son of the prisoner we saw just now; is a witness against his father; and is detained here for safe keeping, until the trial; that’s all. But it is a dreadful place for the child to pass the long days and nights in. This is rather hard treatment for a young witness, is it not?”
(American Notes)

It is, perhaps, at this point that the author’s love of the metropolis begins to definitively wane. It is also, significantly, the point at which New York proves more deleterious than London. Dickens – certainly through his fiction, and in a manner, through his journalistic efforts as well – was constantly seeing to reimagine and rewrite a his own personal history marked by struggle and deprivation. Afterall, how different was he from the son of the prisoner above? No matter how great his celebrity became – how much material comfort he was able to secure – it would seem that Dickens was never fully able to shed the prisons of his youth, and even when a wildly successful adult, was most himself during these late- night rambles, observing a panorama life, mapping out the intersections of poverty and prosperity.

Five Points:

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Tenements constructed of wood in Mulberry Bend in the Five Points neighborhood around 1872, Board of Health.

Eager still to get at the very heart of New York, from The Tombs Dicken moved to the neighborhood of Five points, which was defined as being bound by Centre Street to the west, Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north and Park Row to the south. Poor understandings of environmental conditions and sanitary science – something Dickens worked tirelessly to reform in London – paired with the development of housing on the reclaimed fill land in this area, led to the rapid deterioration, settling and even collapse of the dwellings erected on this site. When the middle classes left this area, the homes were divided, and absorbed the ever-increasing number of urban and immigrant poor.

During the point at which Dickens visited, Five Points would have already been regarded a one of the worst disease-ridden slums in the Western World. In fact, when it came to population density, illness, infant mortality, unemployment, prostitution, violent crime, etc., Five points was only rivaled by certain areas of London's East End. It was, however, considered American melting pot, at first consisting primarily of newly emancipated African Americans (slavery had ended in New York on 4 July 1827), and ethnic Irish, who claimed a presence in the area since the 1600s.

“What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us?” Dickens asks upon arriving at Five Points.

“A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread? – a miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man: his elbows on his knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. ‘What ails that man?’ asks the foremost officer. ‘Fever,’ he sullenly replies, without looking up. Conceive the fancies of a feverish brain, in such a place as this!”
(American Notes)

While he exclaimed that “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here,” Dickens didn’t shy away from Five Points. No, instead he found his way to Almack’s Dance Hall, where Irish and African Americans congregated to drink, socialize and exchange cultural dances. “Our leader has his hand upon the latch of ‘Almack’s,’ and calls to us from the bottom of the steps; for the assembly-room of the Five Point fashionables is approached by a descent. Shall we go in? It is but a moment. Heyday! the landlady of Almack’s thrives!” (American Notes)

One of Almack’s greatest patrons was Master Juba, which was the stage name of Henry Lane who was born in Rhode Island in 1825. He moved to Five Points in his teens, and began competing against Irish-born dancers, eventually moving on to minstrel shows and, later, touring Great Britain. Lane’s style blended African steps with Irish jig moves, and when Dickens saw him perform, he was bowled over. “Five or six couple come upon the floor,” he writes, marshalled by Lane, “who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.” When describing the scene, Dicken’s prose become clipped and rhythmic, mirroring the dance itself: “Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers…dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs - all sorts of legs and no legs - what is this to him?" And in a dramatic flourish, the author recounts Lane finishing his performance by “leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink" (American Notes).

Home Again:

In addition to the poverty-ridden areas of the city – the poorly run hospitals and prisons – that seemed so at odds with the sort of liberty and richness the country promised, the enthusiasm of his American fans began to overwhelm Dickens. He was particularly irritated by those who tried to capitalize on his fame. Tiffany's, for example, had made copies of a Dickens bust, and a rather enterprising barber even tried to sell locks of the writer's hair. By the time the author reached Washington, he was in such a foul mood that he deemed the place “an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone." And as for the capitol’s politicians, Dickens came to the conclusion that, just like everyone else in America, they were motivated by money rather than ideals. When he returned to England, in addition to American Notes, Dickens also published Martin Chuzzlewit, which viciously satirized America, and many of the friends the author had made on his tour, such as Washington Irving, were outraged by the manner in which he had scorned the country. Dickens had been welcomed as a hero, but came to be seen as a traitor.

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Charles Dickens reading in New York by C A Barns, published 1868. © Charles Dickens Museum

It would seem, however, that by 1867, when he made his second tour of America, all was forgiven. After landing in Boston in November, he devoted his first month to dinners with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his American publisher, James Thomas Fields. Following this period, he began a series of “farewell readings,” performing 76 between December 1867 and April 1868. During this time he was shuttled from Boston to New York, where he gave 22 readings at Steinway Hall. Though the schedule was grueling, the author did manage to fit in some sleighing in Central Park. Whilst in the city, Dickens stayed at the Westminster Hotel (then located at Irving Place, near Union Square), where guards had to be placed at his door to keep away admirers who tried to barge in, seeking handshakes or free tickets to his readings. Along the tour, fans were guilty of tearing fur from his coat, and one even took an impression of Dickens’ boot print let in muddy gravel.

During this second visit, Dickens observed a change in the people and the circumstances of America – he was particularly gratified to see that in the period between his tours, slavery had been abolished. His final appearance was at a banquet the American press held in his honor at Delmonico's (then located at 22 Broad Street), on 18 April 1868, where he promised never to denounce America again. “I have been received with unsurpassed politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality” he noted of America generally, and of New York in particular, he believed that it had changed immensely, that he saw “improvement in every direction,” to the extent that “one might be living in Paris.”

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